This has always seemed strange to me that the Pope would not want to distance himself with emperor worship as much as possible. If pointifex maximus was a term used by the government of Rome in its emperor worship, wouldn’t the Pope’s PR men advise using a different title? Or am I not correct in the initial assumption?

Also, I have seen on occasion that he used a pointy hat (the original pontifex maximus) does the Pope ever wear similar clothes as well? Or is there no similarity in dress at all?

  • 5
    Is there anything which the Wikipedia article does not cover? Jul 19, 2012 at 17:18
  • @AndrewLeach- actually I just read the article and it did answer most of my questions. Thanks it was interesting. I did not realize there was so much history to the name.
    – Mike
    Jul 20, 2012 at 3:01
  • This is sort of like using the word "Easter" for resurrection Sunday, despite the pagan origins of that word. Aug 29, 2012 at 20:37

1 Answer 1


So, "pontifex maximus" means "highest pontifex." The Pontifex were, at one time, the priests of the Imperial cult, but over time the meaning of the word broadened and it was used as a word for, "Bishop." The Pope's (unofficial) title is used in that context.

Refusal to use the term (where it clearly applies) would be akin to refusing to use the word, "Tuesday" because it is etymologically linked to the Norse god Týr.

  • Are you saying this was just a common term and bishops in the church were also called pontifex?
    – Mike
    Jul 20, 2012 at 1:10
  • I read the wiki article and your answer is sort of a highly simplified version but good enough to accept.
    – Mike
    Jul 20, 2012 at 3:01
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    @Mike in fact bishops are still called pontifex in the Roman Catholic Church. There is a particular set of rubrics in the older form of the Roman Rite for the missa coram pontifice, which is simply mass celebrated in the presence of a bishop.
    – Ben Dunlap
    Jul 27, 2012 at 2:44
  • This is a simplistic answer and fails to address the highly significant dissonance that exists between the two events of the emperor Gratian renouncing the title and Pope Leo assuming the title more than six decades later Mar 31, 2014 at 15:07

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